Directed by Ben Affleck
THE TOWN is no GONE BABY GONE.
Critics have been heaping a moderate amount of praise upon Ben Affleck’s sophomore crime scene outing set in the criminal-ridden town of Charlestown, Boston. Could it be possible that GONE BABY GONE was so good as to blind critics to the fact that Affleck has made a far inferior second film?
It’s very possible. Where his first film, layered with intricate subtlety that stemmed from a great story by the pen of Dennis LeHane, was grounded in a world of haunting realities and refined exposition, THE TOWN recycles HEAT’s criminal-in-a-forbidden relationship routine in a halfhearted fashion that reduces its female characters to shells, the FBI to a herd of inept morons, and its cast of criminals to the lowest common denominator of recklessness.
Which is a shame, because Affleck’s direction and eye for composition — his work with THERE WILL BE BLOOD cinematographer Robert Elswit is astoundingly beautiful here — is as immaculate as it was with GONE BABY GONE. In many ways, this film is a love letter to Boston, and I’m sure that audiences familiar with the scenery will heap an extra load of praise onto the proceedings. Rightfully so.
It’s also a shame because Affleck has not only proven twice-over that he has an astounding degree of control over his performances, but he delivers the best performance of his career here. Like Leonardo DiCaprio, Affleck’s talent has grown with the lines of age that are beginning to mark his face. He is a powerful, wounded presence here. For much of the film he plays off of the ethereal beauty of FROST/NIXON’s Rebecca Hall, who is a terrific actor but is given one of the most thankless roles in recent female performances.
Jeremy Renner, as Affleck’s reckless brother in crime, continues to knock performances out of the park on his quest for A-list leading man status. And then there’s two actors chosen out of television recognition — Affleck also peppers this script with a few TV references that indicate he sits around in front of the boob tube on a more than casual basis — Titus Welliver and MAD MEN’s Jon Hamm. Hamm, as Affleck’s FBI nemesis of sorts, proves that he has the charisma to power through even the dumbest of scripts.
It’s the script that undermines the affair here. Devin Faraci, formerly of CHUD.com, defended this film from me, stating that it’s simply not aiming to achieve what GONE BABY GONE set out to do, and that the weaknesses of the script seem to align with a different era of crime filmmaking. This simply doesn’t work for me — first of all, the script Affleck is working with seems to aim for the same level of morose pathos that his first film did, which is rendered weak by some criminally mundane dialogue that smashes you over the head with exposition. Many of Affleck and Hall’s early romantic conversations, in which he very unsubtly attempts to pry information from her, come across as at best unrealistic and at worst completely idiotic.
Hall’s character, along with a drug-addicted chick that Affleck has brought into the scenario from his past (played by the astoundingly beautiful Blake Lively), present the most antiquated and hollow form of female caricature possible. Hall’s victimization in a bank robbery at the hands of Affleck’s character Doug MacRay would very understandably fragment her memory; it’s understandable, for instance, that she is unable to recognize his voice later. What’s unforgivable is her inability to see the big picture. Ultimately, it doesn’t much matter — her character disappears into the ether for the last third of the picture, and for all her importance at the beginning, she has (literally) no role in its outcome.
The film is pilfered with problems like this — ideas that looked good on paper (and even look cool on screen, like Pete Postlethwaite’s intimidating flower salesman who overlooks the criminal activity in Charlestown), but ultimately fall apart in execution. THE TOWN falls into a world of non-reality, in which Postlethwaite seemingly operates a flower shop with a bodyguard stationed at all times, in which FBI agents monitor a telephone conversation without the discretion of even closing the blinds, and in which Jeremy Renner’s dumb tattoo amounts to nothing more than a red-herring.
GONE BABY GONE’s complexity has yielded to contrivance. THE TOWN is a failure. But somehow, I still can’t wait to see Affleck summon his strength for round three.